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We flew Delta. It was amazing.

Last month I took my family on a three-week vacation to visit relatives in Europe, people they had never met. It was a wonderful experience. The kids made memories that will last a lifetime. What we didn’t expect was that one of the best memories would be of the flight. I fly a fair amount for work, and I’ve had positive and negative experiences on a variety of airlines. But for my kids, this was their first BIG flight, and every flight they take for the rest of their lives will be measured against this one. Let me tell you, Delta Air Lines created customers for life. My kids were stunned by the service, the food, the kindness, and the attention to detail of every person we interacted with. We got menus, hot towels, unlimited snacks (teenagers love that), and an enormous selection of movies and games. The entire experience was unexpectedly wonderful. Let me repeat that – I flew on a ten-hour transatlantic flight with three teenagers and it was unexpectedly WONDERFUL. So I wasn’t surprised, just a couple of weeks after returning home, to read this article highlighting Delta’s philosophy and the surprise 4% pay raise employees got on Labor Day. Delta gets it. They know the secret sauce to business success is their people. They know that to expect their staff to care for others, their staff must be cared for. Delta is what we refer to as a “self-driving organization” (or should we say self-flying?). The three keys to a self-driving culture are purpose, freedom, and learning.

  • Purpose Unites: At the heart of any effective culture is a broad yet clear purpose that helps gather a diverse workforce toward a common goal. All self-driven organizations have a clear, actionable answer when an employee asks, “How are we making the world be a better place?” I bet all Delta staff can answer that question.  
  • Freedom Empowers: When you trust employees to solve challenges in their own way, using their own natural abilities, they solve those problems quicker, more effectively, and more efficiently. The opposite of freedom and autonomy is control. The more management seeks to control employees, the more they limit employees’ potential for growth, creativity, and motivation. We flew basic economy, which means we didn’t get to choose our seats. However, the Delta team made sure we were all seated together. It was clear that everyone we interacted with at Delta was empowered.  
  • Learning Fuels: If you only give someone a purpose and freedom, you’ll be left with a person inspired and empowered to change the future, but lacking the skills, behaviors, and understanding to make that vision a reality. Knowledge is the engine that turns ideas and will into action. As someone working in adult learning, I know Delta’s learning programs by reputation. They get that learning is more than what happens in the classroom, it’s part of a broader strategy.

No matter what industry you’re in, to succeed, you need engaged, creative employees in every department, in every role.

Jillian Douglas is Chief Learning Officer at Idea Learning, a Portland-based learning and strategy agency that provides experience-basedopen-path, and purpose-driven learning that’s essential to fueling self-driving organizations.

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